In Houston? Missing This Museum Would Be a Fatal Error

by Kirsten Weiss

The hearse is a work of art.

Its high, wooden sides gleam, hand-carved into the shape of folded drapes. But it’s an automobile, and not of the Victorian period I’m looking for as I research my next steampunk suspense novel. So I continue past the rows and rows of hearses and end up in front of a replica of an Egyptian mummy. Ah yes, the museum’s embalming section. [Tweet this!]

IMG_1192 early 20th century hearse

An early 20th century hearse (photo by Kirsten Weiss).

The National Museum of Funeral History may not be a Houston, TX institution, but it’s certainly one of its more unusual tourist attractions. Founded in 1992, it holds over 35,500 square feet of exhibition space, and is connected to a mortuary school.

As for the embalming exhibit, I learn that embalming fell into disuse after the ancient Egyptians and didn’t really get going again until Victorian days. Who knew? In America, the Civil War brought the embalming process to the masses. And in an early case of crony capitalism, an embalmer “persuaded” Congress to make his company the sole embalmer to Union Troops (predictably, the price of his embalming soon rose).

Relieved to have landed in my Victorian research period, I snap photos of mourning wear and mourning art, then circle back to the hearse room. And finally, I find hearse carriages from my research period, and even a horse-drawn sleigh.

IMG_1195 18th century hearses

Hearses from the Victorian era. Men were drawn in black carriages, women and children in white carriages.

But I’m soon distracted by the electronic “guess the epitaph” game in the celebrity funeral section, aptly named the “Thanks For the Memories” exhibit. I’m terrible at guessing the epitaphs of movie stars. Weirdly, I ace the TV star epitaph quiz.

Planning to be in Houston,Texas anytime soon? Then check out the National Museum of Funeral History. Their trademarked tagline is one to live by: “Any day above ground is a good one.” (TM)

What’s your favorite oddball tourist attraction?

Posted by Kirsten Weiss. Kirsten is the author of Steam and Sensibility, a steampunk novel of suspense set in Victorian-era America, and the Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mysteries.

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  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    May 22, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    Wow! I love that first hearse. That woodworking is indeed a work of art. What a cool museum. I will definitely check it out next time I’m in Texas.

    As for oddball tourist attractions, I’m a sucker for wax museums. The last one I went to was in St. Augustine. It was pretty good, but the Presidents of U.S. display was a bit strange. Lady Bird Johnson was standing next to John Kennedy, and was several inches taller than him.

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    May 22, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    Right up my alley! What a great find. I loved the Police Museum in Vancouver and the Daliborka Tower in Prague where instruments of torture are on display in the original dungeon.

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    May 22, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I guess necessity is the mother of trends! With the number of fatalities and the distance needed to get back to loved ones, it sounds like embalming was absolutely crucial. Really interesting post!

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    May 24, 2014 at 1:37 am

    I couldn’t believe how many hearses this museum had. I felt like I was in a car showroom. The place is huge!

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